Third-generation Rock Hill car dealer Claude Burns III recently was honored as a nominee for the Time magazine National Dealer of the Year Award.
Burns, whose Burns Chevrolet has been in business since 1923, was one of only 51 dealers nominated for the honor. He was recognized at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in San Francisco earlier this month. He was nominated by the S.C. Automobile Dealers Association.
After helping out at his father's dealership at the age of 10, Burns, 50, attended The Citadel and went to work at the dealership after graduation as the body shop manager. He became dealer in 1984.
The Herald caught up with Burns this week to talk about his family's success, the future of green technology in the automotive industry and whether or not to expect a fourth generation of Burns dealers. Responses have been edited for brevity. Here's what he had to say:
Q. What about the car industry has kept you in the business for a third generation?
A. Well, my grandfather did it before me, he started selling Chevrolets in Rock Hill in 1923. Then, my father did it after him, and I always enjoyed it, too. The auto business is multifaceted, it's not just selling cars. There's auto body, repairs and maintenance and used cars. We really have six different businesses under one roof. After being given the opportunity, I realized it's just something I enjoy.
Q. What's the outlook for sales this year in light of the so-called sluggish economy?
A. Most forecasts are only calling for sales to go down about 2.5 percent this year. The industry is predicting about 16 million units sold. But they're talking about the baby boomers' kids soon buying more cars, and that could take sales above 20 million units. That would be huge. The car business really languishes when you see a drop, but it is really successful when it jumps. You just have to endure the ups and downs.
Q. How has your family endured it for 85 years?
A. We're not real flashy. We're just conservative people that have adjusted our business through changing times. A lot of dealers have wild promises they can't live up to. We've always just tried to be honest and do what we say we'll do. I don't think there's any family in the state that's owned a dealership as long as ours.
Q. Will there be a fourth generation leading the business?
A. My middle son, James, is in the business now. He's the only one of my three children really involved right now. My oldest son hasn't shown as much interest, and my youngest daughter is married and making her own life now.
Q. You talked about the ups and downs of the car business. How will the popularity of green technology impact the automotive industry?
A. I think everybody is concerned about gas prices. What a great thing it would be if we could tell the Middle East to keep their oil. I think with alternatives like battery power and fuel cells coming online, we'll see more change in the next 10 years than we've seen in the past 50 years, at least.